The following essay by Adam Kirsch on Robert Lowell's 1977 NBCC winner, “Day by Day,” appeared in 2007 in the In Retrospect series on Critical Mass in which critics and writers revisit NBCC finalists from previous years. Kirsch was named a winner of the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism (with Marcela Valdes) at the Shattuck Conference on the Future of Criticism earlier this month.
On September 12, 1977, Robert Lowell died of a heart attack in the back of a taxicab, on his way home to the Upper West Side from Kennedy Airport. Lowell was just sixty years old when he died, but he had already outlived most of the poets of his brilliant, afflicted generation. Delmore Schwartz, his onetime roommate, died in 1966, a paranoid recluse in a Times Square flophouse; John Berryman, his close friend and rival, committed suicide in 1972 by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis; Randall Jarrell, his college roommate, was hit by a car in 1965, also probably a suicide; Sylvia Plath, whom he had taught at Boston University, killed herself in London in 1963. As this list shows, Lowell stood at the center of his generation in a personal as well as a literary sense. It was not just that he was the most talented poet of his time, and the most famous. For three decades, he was poetry's epicenter, and the violent tremors that radiated out from his life and work reshaped the whole landscape of American verse.
Since Lowell died, no poet has achieved his kind of centrality, and probably no poet has wanted it. Edmund Wilson judged that only Lowell and Auden, of late-twentieth-century poets, managed to achieve literary careers “on the old nineteenth-century scale.” But that is partly because, since World War II, poets have generally mistrusted that scale and its larger-than-life measurements. Lowell's sublime egotism, his guileless assumption that his life was representative of his times and deserved to be accordingly grand in scope, is now decidedly out of fashion. For today's poets and readers, Elizabeth Bishop–the only great poet of Lowell's generation to outlive him–offers a more trustworthy model of how a poet should write: carefully, precisely, attaining large ends with modest means.
In fact, by the end of his life, Lowell himself seemed to come to the same conclusion. That is why his last collection of poems, “Day by Day,” occupies such an important, and ambiguous, place in his body of work. Published in 1977, just weeks before Lowell died, “Day by Day” went on to win the National Book Critics' Circle award–the last honor in a career that had already included the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes. To its first readers, encountering “Day by Day” that fall, in the wake of the poet's ugly, anonymous death, must have been a strange experience–like reading a last will and testament, or a suicide note. For there are few books of poetry, by Lowell or anyone else, more saturated with death and the expectation of death. More than a subject, death in “Day by Day” is an optic, a way of seeing that colors every image and metaphor. It is a book written to be posthumous.
This slightly valetudinarian atmosphere, resigned to decline and death, is already present in the book's first poem, “Ulysses and Circe.” For Tennyson, the figure of Ulysses served as a perfect symbol of defiant age; in his famous poem, the king is “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Lowell, however, focuses on a different phase of the Ulysses myth: the hero on Circe's island, enervated by pleasure, drained of will. “Young,/he made strategic choices,” Lowell writes; “in middle age he accepts/his unlikely life to come;/he will die like others as the gods will….” This conversational, contemporary, unheroic language reduces Ulysses to an aging everyman, constantly aware of his failing powers. Even the island's late-summer trees are aa reminder: “In a day or two,/Their leaves also will fall,/like his followers,/stained by their hesitation/prematurely brown.”
Throughout the book, Lowell continues to find such metaphors of age and decline everywhere he looks. The “Tennessee cardinals” seen outside a friend's window “dart and tag and mate–/young as they want to be./We're not,” the poet dully reminds himself. In the window of a church, “the Psalmist's glass mosaic Shepherd/and bright green pastures/seem to wait/with the modish faithlessness/and erotic daydream/of art nouveau for our funeral.” Here, as in many poems, Lowell uses the first personal plural: his sense of decline extends to his whole generation, and he writes about his contemporaries with saturnine pity.
We feel the machine slipping from our hands,
as if someone else were steering;
if we see a light at the end of the tunnel,
it's the light of an oncoming train.
The sense of encroaching decrepitude is more than Lowell's subject, however; it is kneaded into the very texture of his language. For years before “Day by Day,” Lowell had written exclusively in a form of his own invention, an unrhymed sonnet of fourteen densely packed lines. These sonnets, collected in his magnificent books “History” and “The Dolphin,” are almost never perfectly wrought, with the concentrated symbolic force of Lowell's early poems. They are, rather, negligently magnificent, the rapid sketches of an artist who delights in capturing a subject in a few quick strokes, then moving on to another. The sheer number of Lowell's sonnets–he wrote many hundreds–is a kind of statement. Reading them, we have the sense that Lowell is like a man with a huge fortune, able to strew his riches carelessly around.
To turn from Lowell's sonnets to “Day by Day” is to watch him going bankrupt. The fat squares of the sonnets are thinned into a trickle of free verse, running irregularly down the page. These poems are often made up of disconnected observations, seemingly put down in the order they occurred to the poet. He uses the shorthand of a man talking mainly to himself: “I was fifteen;/they made me cry in public./Chicken?” he asks in “St. Mark's, 1933,” a recollection of his prep-school days. The very subject invites a kind of bleak nostalgia, which becomes the dominant tone of the book.
This is especially true in the poems dealing with the collapse of Lowell's third marriage, to the novelist Caroline Blackwood. “The Dolphin,” his previous collection, told the painful but triumphant story of Lowell's escape from his failed second marriage, to Elizabeth Hardwick, and his discovery of new life and strength in a new love. But in “Day by Day” this new love itself is beginning to fail, leaving Lowell perplexed and adrift. “The single sheet keeps shifting on the double bed,/the more I kick it smooth, the less it covers;/it is the bed I made,” he writes, again turning a casual observation into a symbol. He alludes to his private griefs in such a cursory fashion that it is clear he expects the reader to be already familiar with them. Like Ulysses, Lowell's life has become public property, a legend whose details the reader already knows: “He dislikes everything/in his impoverished life of myth.”
The artistic question raised by “Day by Day” is whether this newfound modesty, of style and voice alike, represents the culmination of Lowell's work, or a decline from his highest standard. Simply because “Day by Day” is his last book, it is tempting to regard it as a summary of everything he knows about his art. That is the message generations of readers have taken from the book's famous last poem, “Epilogue.” Here Lowell acknowledges that the poems of “Day by Day” can seem “threadbare,” “paralyzed by fact.” Yet he suggests that this stripped-down style is nobler, because more accurate, than the historical and literary pageantry of his earlier work. The last lines of “Epilogue” became an ars poetica for a whole generation of poets:
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
There is a moving truth in these lines, and a genuine integrity. But after thirty years, it is time to recognize that this ethic of accuracy, based on pity for the transitory world, is not the only way to write poetry. And it certainly was not the basis for Robert Lowell's best work. Neither the furiously driven poems of Lowell's first book, “Lord Weary's Castle,” nor the daring moral investigations of “History,” could have been written by a poet simply interested in “accuracy.” Even in “Life Studies,” his groundbreaking volume of confessional poems about his family and mental illness, Lowell is not giving us “living names” so much as an autobiographical myth, raising his private experience to the level of universal truth.
Lowell's style, at its best, is a rhetorical style–that is, he uses language deliberately and artificially to communicate a feeling of power. If he eschewed that style in “Day by Day,” it may not be because he had grown out of it; rather, he may simply have tired of it for the moment. In fact, Lowell had undergone this sort of stylistic exhaustion several times before in his career, and each time he eventually found a new outlet for his native power–in the harsh music of “Lord Weary's Castle,” the illusory naturalism of “Life Studies” and the kingly sonnets of “History.” If Lowell had lived longer, “Day by Day” might now look like a modest, transitional work, a prelude rather than a conclusion. As it is, Lowell's last book stands as the last word in his achievement–but not the last word on it.